Made on a shoestring budget in just three weeks with only two professional actors and a crew of about 5, “Monsters” manages to be smarter, creepier, and more thoughtful than most movies made with 100 times the budget.
Set just a few years in the future, “Monsters” finds the northern half of Mexico quarantined as an “Infected Zone” after a NASA space probe looking for extra-terrestrial life on Jupiter’s moons comes crashing back to Earth. A band of land more than 100 miles wide is now inhabited with giant alien life forms that lay waste to everything in their path.
Working safely south of the Infected Zone is Andrew Kaulder (Scoot McNairy), a photojournalist eager to catch Mexico’s newest citizens on film. But his quest is detoured when his editor calls to tell him that their publisher wants Kaulder to escort his daughter, Sam (Whitney Able, McNairy’s then-real-life-girlfriend-now-wife), back to the safety of the states.
The film was essentially location scouted, cast and shot on the fly, and much of it was improvised, giving the proceedings a very real feel—there weren’t the time nor resources for anything to be contrived or artificial. It makes for impressive performances from both McNairy and Able, though she seems to stay on point a little better than he. “Monsters” is a beautifully shot road movie and romance with an impending sense of doom lurking around each bend in the trail. The monsters rear their ugly heads just enough that you never forget why Sam and Kaulder are making their way north.
Writer-director-cinematographer Gareth Edwards spent a few years as an award-winning special effects artist who one day decided that he could make a great-looking film using today’s desktop technology, and finally decided to prove himself right. The destruction, ruins, tentacles and explosions that litter the film’s landscape are a testament to Edwards’ skills, and he smartly keeps upping the ante as the story moves forward.
The first hour of the film very delicately presents a condemnation of U.S. immigration policy, highlighting the death and devastation that America’s percolating nativism is exacting. Except, in this case, Sam and Kaulder are the immigrants seeking to make it to America. Unfortunately, Edwards loses faith in their audience, and a fireside chat between our heroes and some “coyotes” all but circles the metaphor with a telestrator and breaks it down for you, ala John Madden. It’s always disappointing when filmmaker fears he can’t trust his audience.
There are reports that Edwards made this film for about $15,000, which, to simply look at it, seems impossible. Regardless, "Monsters" is a great looking and engrossing piece of guerilla filmmaking that is sure to get him a much larger budget for his next feature.